Rejeanne Fairhead stood at the starting line in front of Ottawa’s city hall on Saturday surrounded by thousands of racers who were almost all, assuredly, younger than her.
But as the sun beat down on a 28 C day in the nation’s capital, the 96-year-old took a deep breath and burst forward.
Fifty-one minutes and nine seconds later she was a world record holder.
“It felt very good,” Fairhead said, in an interview the day after her big accomplishment. “I was proud of what I did. But I was glad it was all over too.”
Fairhead walked the five-kilometre distance in the Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend almost five minutes faster than American Betty Lindberg, who set the previous world record for a 5K race completed by women between the ages of 95 and 99.
Lindberg was 97 when she finished the Atlanta Peachtree Marathon Weekend in 55 minutes and 48 seconds in February 2022.
Unlike Lindberg, who has racked up the records as a master’s athlete in multiple distances, Fairhead did not before, nor does she really now, see herself as an athlete.
“They call me that, but I don’t know if I do,” she said, laughing.
Fairhead said for her first 95 years of life the most athletic pursuits she had involved bowling and horse shoes. But a little more than a year ago, a friend at the Perley Rideau Seniors’ Village asked if she wanted to try the 5K race in Ottawa’s annual marathon weekend.
Fairhead said sure. She walked that race in 58 minutes and 52 seconds, setting the Canadian record in her age category. Then she found out she was only three minutes or so off the world record.
So she set her sights on that title too.
Over the winter she began training with physiotherapist and running coach Richelle Weeks, who donated her time. Weeks set up a training plan that had Fairhead walking three times a week, and on alternating days doing basic strength exercises at home.
Finally on Saturday afternoon, with her family and Weeks circling her like a security detail, Fairhead set out on a course that took her up in front of the Parliament Buildings, and then on a loop up and down the famed Rideau Canal.
By the time she hit one kilometre, she knew she had the record in the bag. She was going so fast Weeks even told her she could slow down.
“So I knew from the beginning pretty well, that if I kept doing what I was doing I was getting it,” Fairhead said.
Only four women over the age of 80 competed, and Fairhead finished second among them. She also finished ahead of 627 other racers in all age groups.
It was incredibly hot. She kept hydrated with a sports drink, and at one point grabbed a cup of water from a volunteer and tossed it down her back. Her son kept watch on the road around her, warning her of pot holes or debris so she didn’t trip.
Her daughter held up a sign telling everyone there was a world record attempt in progress. At the finish line her daughter posed with Fairhead with the sign, covering up the word “attempt” with her arm.
Fairhead raised six children, and also has 12 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.Five of them walked the course with her and many others lined up to cheer her on.
Born in 1926 in Saskatchewan, she moved to Ottawa in her early 20s and has lived there ever since. Her husband was in the military. She worked for the federal government in Saskatchewan before moving and stayed home to raise their kids after they were born.
She returned to the government when her kids were grown and worked in various roles for almost two decades before retiring. She lived independently until three years ago, when she moved into seniors’ apartments at a senior’s health centre specializing in care for veterans and their families.
She used her races in 2022 and 2023 to fundraise for the Perley Health Foundation, raising more than $2,000 last year. As of Sunday, her total for this year was above $7,400.
Fairhead said despite the heat it didn’t take her long to recover from the race. About half an hour after she crossed the finish line she said she felt fine again.
On Sunday morning she was already back doing her volunteer work at the Perley, and fit in an interview before heading out to do her weekly grocery shopping.
Fairhead said she is glad she inspired people with her effort — she said her motto is to not let your age define what you can do.
“I’ve been telling everybody to me, age is just a number. You know, if you feel good, do something.”
But she is also ready to hang up her record-breaking shoes.
“If I do walk next year it will just for fun,” she said. “I’m not going to try to beat anything. I think I’ve done my share. I think I’ve had enough.”